Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following:  poverty, suicide, postpartum depression, death, racism and prejudice.

Goodreads Rating: 4 Stars


This novel made me a fan of Kingsolver all over again. I read The Poisonwood Bible way back in eleventh grade for my AP English class (shout out to Mrs. McCuen!) and though it’s a heavy novel, I enjoyed the lyricism and emotion in Kingsolver’s writing. I have since picked up a few of her novels, but do to their size, I have put off reading them- until Unsheltered. At 17 hours of audio time, it was a perfect choice for my long haul road trip.

The novel kicks off with the shocking upheaval of Willa Knox’s life, in which her position at a magazine ceases to exist with the closure of the company, and her husband Iano has just lost his job as a professor with the closure of the college. Scrambling for security, Iano takes a teaching job in New Jersey, the couple sells their apartment in New York City, and the two move into a dilapidated 1880’s home. Then, compounding the family’s complicated situation, Willa’s son Zeke loses his wife, leaving him floundering with a newborn child; her daughter Tig comes home from a year-long hiatus in Cuba; and Willa must take care of her ailing, aging father-in-law, Nick. Willa is thrown by the unexpected changes in her life, but with Tig’s help, she learns how to survive without the comforts of middle class privilege.

While overcoming the changes, Willa brainstorms the idea that the historical society may be interested in helping them preserve their house and delves into researching the age of the home and it’s past residents. Here she learns about Thatcher Greenwood and his connection with Mary Treat, fellow naturalist and friend of Charles Darwin. In a parallel to Willa’s story, we learn about Thatcher and the real-life character of Mary Treat, as well as the controversy brought about by the theory of evolution.

Kingsolver writes a very contemporary, political, and complex novel that covers so many relevant issues, such as suicide, adoption, healthcare, discrimination, and environmentalism. At times, the narrative does go off on tangents of these topics, but I think they still remained relevant to the novel and emphasized the importance of sustainability and resiliancy. When Willa finds herself spiraling in a panic of ‘what do we do’, there is always an underlying determination to overcome or accept that the situation could be worse. I also want to say that though Tig annoyed me at times with her rants, I found her to be the most interesting character and enjoyed her pragmatic nature. She had strong beliefs and remained optimistic in the future, despite the obstacles before her and her concern for the world at large.

I think listening to the audiobook kept me involved with this novel, and though I may have zoned out on a tangent or two, I kept being drawn back by curiosity about what would happen with the family. In the end, I felt the ending was a little anticlimactic, but also realistic. Every novel can’t promise a happy ending, and Kingsolver is a realist, so she’s not going to deliver it when the whole atmosphere around the novel has been bleak. It’s not going to be everyone’s ideal read, but I can appreciate that kind of consistency.

Published: October 16, 2018

Publisher: Harper

TL/DR: Unsheltered is a fiction novel about a family as they adapt to dramatic family changes, and how their home connects with environmentalism and history.

Read it? It is rather bleak, but a very well written novel. Read it, but be realistic about your expectations.

Recommend it? Yes, but only to specific audiences looking for this kind of book.

Buy it? I would read a borrowed copy of this book before I bought it, unless you are a fan of Kingsolver’s novels already and know what to expect from her writing.

If you liked this novel or review, check out these similar reads:

  • Every Last Cuckoo by Kate Maloy
  • The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
  • The Ghost Clause by Howard Norman
  • The Invited by Jennifer McMahon

Categories: Book Review, Contemporary, Family Drama, Fiction, Kentucky Reads

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4 replies


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